Wednesday, August 7, 2019

"If I want your help, I'll ask for it!"

Isaac Asimov
I have a 2017 Toyota Highlander. Yesterday, I started it up to run the air conditioner so the interior would cool off. When I walked away, the car beeped at me three times. I'm not sure what it was trying to tell me. But I am sure I don't want it to tell me anything. Cars should not speak unless spoken to.

I despise this car. Here are more reasons why:

After a hot walk in the woods with one of my pups, I started the car again to cool it off while I was giving her a drink. While she was drinking, I thought I'd open the back hatch. But I wasn't allowed. It would not open unless I turned the car off.

Above a certain speed, if I cross a painted line of any type, even on purpose, the car beeps furiously at me. It actually sounds angry.

It's a push-button start. You must have the keys close to the car for the push-button start to work. You must also have your foot on the brake to start the car. (So, no more quickly leaning into a thousand-degree car -- which is in "park," which I assume is not safe enough if your foot is not on the brake -- to turn on the ignition and start the AC without sizzling one's skin on the thigh-griddle that leather seats become in the summer.)

Cruise control? Sure, I like it. Or I used to. Now, my car slows down for me if the cars ahead of me do, which typically results in my thinking I am doing 75 MPH until I look down and realize I am doing 16 because my car thought we should slow down.

Speaking of thoughtfulness, my car's engine shuts off at lights in order to save gas. In the meantime, the sweat beads start to form on the family as the AC gets hotter and hotter because the engine is not running. (Oh, but I can stop this by not pushing quite as hard on the brake pedal... Right.)

I hate this car. I loathe it. But I am not a Luddite. My intimate involvement with all sorts of technology, as a teacher and as a musician, prove this to be so. But my stance on technology is reflective of the old saying, "If I want your help, I'll ask for it." (Which, strange as it may seem, used to be said by one human to another.) I want to determine, for myself, when and how my machines are going to assist me.

Hold it right there, you techie folks. I know exactly what you are going to say. You are going to tell me I can turn all of those things off in my car. (In truth, I assume I can, but haven't checked because I like to spend as little time thinking about that car as possible. If it weren't a lease, I'd go out there right now and start clipping wires.)  But I would argue that I should have to turn them on if I want them on. There is a major difference.

Let's at least make it foundational that we humans must choose the level of our devices' involvement in our lives. Maybe we should add this to Asimov's laws of robotics: "A robot must never determine its actions for itself."

Was I asked if I was okay with sharing the road with driverless cars? Can't recall it. But why would people who are doing their darndest to program machines that can "write music" even think to ask? The goal is, after all, to make ourselves as useless as possible.

Seriously, why did all those sci-fi writers even bother to warn us? We're just rolling out the red carpet for our Robot Overlords.

As far as I'm concerned, Alexa and Siri can cheese off. And I'll do my own parallel parking and if I want slowly to back my Toyota Highlander into a tree, I darn well will. (At least the backup camera will assure me a nice, square impact.)

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